Bremer threatens to veto Iraqis' choice of president

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The Independent Online

Talks on naming an interim president for Iraq were deadlocked yesterday as a rift between US occupation officials and the Iraqi leadership they appointed threatens to undermine American plans to hand over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on 30 June.

Talks on naming an interim president for Iraq were deadlocked yesterday as a rift between US occupation officials and the Iraqi leadership they appointed threatens to undermine American plans to hand over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on 30 June.

The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council wants to appoint its current leader, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, who has spoken out against the failure of the occupation, but the US occupation governor, Paul Bremer, is insisting that they choose instead Adnan al-Pachachi, an 81-year-old former diplomat, who has said he believes American troops need to stay in Iraq until the security situation improves.

It emerged yesterday that Mr Bremer warned the council during talks on Sunday not to put the decision to the vote, saying that if it elected Sheikh Yawar, he would veto the decision. Further talks scheduled for yesterday were postponed at America's request until today, meaning that the deadline to name the interim government by the end of May was missed.

As well as Mr Bremer, a special envoy for President Bush, Robert Blackwill, and the United Nations envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, are attending the talks.

The sight of the Americans trying to bully the Governing Council into accepting their choice is threatening to destroy the interim government's credibility in the eyes of Iraqis. The US is already facing widespread accusations that the handover is cosmetic, and designed so that President Bush can claim the occupation is over ahead of the American presidential election in November.

The Bush administration has already made it clear it intends to keep US forces in their current numbers in Iraq after 30 June, and that it does not want them to be under the command of the interim Iraqi government.

It is not clear why the US has decided to dig in its heels over the presidency, which will be a largely ceremonial role - especially after the controversial selection of Iyad Allawi, a Shia with close links to MI6 and the CIA, for the more influential post of interim Prime Minister.

Originally it was the UN envoy Mr Brahimi who was supposed to choose the new government, but the process was hijacked last week when the Governing Council got in first and voted to appoint Mr Allawi, to Mr Brahimi's clear astonishment. With Mr Brahimi's role already completely undermined, the Americans now seem to be about to pull the rug from under the Governing Council -- and in doing so, expose the new interim government as one appointed by the US alone, without Iraqi involvement.

The Governing Council was never the most likely guardian of Iraqi legitimacy. It was appointed by the US to give a veneer of Iraqi involvement in their occupation administration, but quickly proved unpopular, and its members were denounced as collaborators. It was also ignored by the Americans when they made controversial decisions such as the launching of April's siege of Fallujah, which many council members denounced.

America's reasons for preferring Mr Pachachi over Sheikh Yawar are obvious. Both are in fact popular choices with the Iraqi street - although the US attempts to arm-twist the Governing Council have dented Mr Pachachi's standing badly. Both are Sunnis, to balance the fact that Mr Allawi is a Shia, and both are members of the Governing Council.

But Sheikh Yawar, the head of one of the country's most powerful tribes, has recently criticised the US occupation. "We blame the United States 100 per cent for the security in Iraq," he said. "They occupied the country, disbanded the security agencies and for 10 months left Iraq's borders open for anyone to come in without a visa or even a passport." Mr Pachachi, by contrast, has said he believes that only the US forces can restore security.

That security situationremains so bad that even Mr Brahimi has spoken out against it. "The security situation is just impossible," he was quoted as saying by Time magazine. As if to underline his words there was yet another car bombing outside the US headquarters in Baghdad yesterday. At least two Iraqis, one a small girl, were killed. US forces said they suspected the intended target was Mr Allawi's office.

Violence that threatens to destroy a fragile ceasefire between US forces and the militia of the Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr continued, with some of the most serious fighting yet reported in Kufa, which is next to the Shia holy city of Najaf.

Under a deal negotiated by Shia leaders, both US forces and Mr Sadr's Mehdi Army militia are supposed to withdraw from Najaf. Whether the deal extends to Kufa is not clear.

US forces have accused the Mehdi Army of breaking the deal by firing on them. Shia leaders in Najaf yesterday called on the Americans to stop "aggressive patrols" which they said were causing the fighting.

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